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Sunday, Oct. 15, 2000

JAPAN LITE

Roll out the mauve carpet and put the sake on ice


When I heard that the ambassador of Haiti and a voodoo priest would be visiting my house, I rushed around in a flurry to get things ready. After all, how often do you have an ambassador and a voodoo priest in your house at the same time?

I had visions of being the perfect hostess. Reality hit when I checked the closet for a red carpet and there was none. I checked with my neighbor Ueda-san. "Are you sure you don't have one?" I asked. "It doesn't have to be exactly red; tomato or mauve would be OK." She just looked at me with a blank smile. It was the same smile she gave when I told her about my esteemed guests from Haiti. Her eyes got cloudy and I could tell she was struggling to remember back 60 years to junior high-school geography class, trying to recall if Haiti was in the South Pacific or the Baltic Sea.

"You know, Haiti. It's an island," I said. "One of those dot countries in the Caribbean. On the world map, it's between the Cuban dot and the Jamaican dot." Except that Haiti shares an island with The Dominican Republic so it's really a half-a-dot country. Ueda-san's face brightened as if things were suddenly now in perspective. I could tell she had been boning up on her dots.

Shiraishi Island, where I live, is no place to do last minute shopping. I went to the only liquor store and said, "Give me a bottle of your best sake." To which the owner replied, "That would be this one," pointing to the only brand they carry. "I'll take it," I said. There was no place to buy a nice vase of flowers for a centerpiece either, so I had to settle for wild flowers in an empty wine bottle. As I arranged the wildflowers and set the table, I cursed myself: "I knew I should have taken that paper-napkin folding class they offered at the YMCA last year."

Things could have been worse, however. Thankfully, it wasn't toilet-pumping day, that one day each month when the toilet-pumping men come and clean out the sewage from the island-style non-flush toilets.

Although they always come on a different day each month, you know immediately when they arrive because the whole island smells like sewage. You then know that at some point during the day, the toilet-pumping men will suddenly arrive yelling "nagashite!", the cue for me to dump a bucket of water into the holding tank to encourage the remaining sewage to leave through the vacuum tube operated by the toilet-pumping men.

Wouldn't the arrival of the toilet-pumping men yelling "nagashite!" have ruined the party! I would have had to employ Ueda-san to fend off the sewage truck while I passed out oxygen masks to the guests. Poor Ueda-san would be stuck having to explain Haiti to the men in the truck, "Please take a detour, the ambassador of Haiti is visiting! You know, Haiti, one of those dot countries in the Caribbean."

And thankfully, the ambassador was kind and understanding about our informal island life. He pretended not to notice that the stereo system was sitting in the "tokonoma" (a space usually reserved for displaying the finer Japanese cultural arts such as ikebana and calligraphy).

He pretended not to notice that the coffee service was sacrilegiously employing the area in front of the Buddhist altar. He intuitively took the seat furthest from the door when I forgot to usher him to that spot, where the most important person sits in a Japanese-style room.

He kept us laughing with his entertaining stories of his childhood growing up in Haiti while my husband served beer and distributed drink coasters, souvenirs from Ohio State University that say "Go Buckeyes!" with a silk-screened picture of the OSU football stadium on them.

The ambassador didn't seem to mind, though. In his heart he must have realized how much we enjoy living on Shiraishi Island even though it's just a speck in the Seto Inland Sea between the Japanese dots of Honshu and Shikoku.

He soon had us all talking among ourselves as if we were old friends. We listened to Haitian music and the voodoo priest, Bonga, began to explain voodoo and its influence on Haitian culture. He told us stories about zombies, people being possessed by spirits and the role of voodoo in Haitian music. So be sure to read next week's column, "Interview with a voodoo priest."

Visit the Japan Lite home page at www.amychavez.com or e-mail comments to: amychavez@mailexcite.com


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